Keepers: Subaru Impreza WRX

By Christopher Smith

August 13, 2009

Every once in a while a car comes along that transcends the motoring world to become an icon for a generation. Cars like the 1957 Chevy Bel Air and 1965 Ford Mustang may spring to mind as previous icons, and as we enter the final months of the 21st-century’s premier decade, we find there’s a new car to grace that exclusive list: the 2002 Subaru Impreza WRX.

Before the cries of sacrilege come streaming in, consider that the WRX—aside from being an outstanding driver’s car—is the first automobile whose popularity in this country is directly linked to the worldwide digital revolution, and that’s a big deal. Subaru never intended to send us the little-turbo-that-could; the original WRX was born in Japan a full nine years before it finally made a U.S. landfall in 2001. During that time it became a bit of a performance legend everywhere else but here, thanks to a dominating presence in the World Rally Championship where the WRX’s small size, all-wheel drive grip, and big-time horsepower gave Subaru the manufacturer’s title for three straight years during the latter half of the 1990s. Of course, the World Rally Championship never entered the U.S. market, and that lack of visibility—combined with the American penchant for V-8 performance—left Subaru executives cool to the idea of importing the car into what appeared to be an uninformed, unfriendly market.


Meanwhile, a little thing called the internet was happening, and young Americans were discovering videos of Subaru-badged cars with big wings, throwing thirty-foot dirt rooster tails while negotiating hairpin corners at full opposite lock. A curious video game called Gran Turismo on the original Sony Playstation soon followed, in which players could “drive” about 100,000 different variations of the WRX. By the end of the century, Subaru’s street-legal rally car had built a sizable U.S. enthusiast base, and Subie bosses took notice. Not bad for a car most Americans hadn’t even driven.

As such, when the Impreza WRX finally went on sale in the states as a 2002 model, Subaru couldn’t keep up with demand. Never mind that the freshly-redesigned car had a bug-eyed, gaping mouth look Jeremy Clarkson once described as “having a stick shoved up its backside.” Or that its interior was often criticized for being too bargain basement. Or that Americans had to make due with the 227-horsepower version while the rest of the world could opt for the 300-horsepower STi edition. The Volkswagen Beetle isn’t regarded as an iconic car because of how great it was, and the WRX attains this status for a similar reason. The growl of the horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine, the rush of power as the turbo comes on boost, the snickery shifter and supportive seats, the all-wheel drive platform that begs to be driven sideways; combine these performance bits with the oddball looks, boy-racer trim, and a relatively inexpensive as-new price tag, and you have a positively-thrilling vehicle that offers a driving experience as rewarding—and unique—as its character. Other cars may go faster, handle better, or look less cartoon-ish, but for a new generation of driving enthusiasts seeking a fresh identity, it was the perfect performance car at the perfect time.